The Fear

Michel Houellebecq gives the legendary Lovecraft a new platform

Lovecraft's best-known sentence is the opening line of "The Call of Cthulhu": "The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." In that, his may be a more intriguing mentality than even Houellebecq allows.

A materialist and an atheist, Lovecraft considered the Cthulhu Mythos a burlesque religion. This penchant for self-parody has been largely unrecognized— although Jorge Luis Borges, who included a few paragraphs on Lovecraft in his 1967 Introduction to American Literature, characterized his tales as "comic nightmares." And so has HPL's place in the New England tradition—save for Borges, who compares Lovecraft to Hawthorne (as HPL did himself) and Joyce Carol Oates, who hilariously suggested that the Cthulhu Mythos expressed "a mock Transcendentalism in which 'spirit' resides everywhere except possibly in human beings."

America's 17th-century frontier was as uncanny for Lovecraft as for its first white settlers—and no less haunted by mysterious presences. "West of Arkham the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep woods that no axe has ever cut. There are dark narrow glens where the trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets glint without ever having caught the glint of the sunlight." It is "a lonely and curious country" with "stretches of marshland that one instinctively dislikes . . ." The sickly offspring of Cotton Mather ("Go tell Mankind, that there are Devils and Witches . . .") and Michael "The Day of Doom" Wigglesworth, as well as Hawthorne and Emily Dickinson, Lovecraft is heir to Puritan gloom and theological intolerance. His fantasies push the Salem witch trials further into apocalyptic paranoia.

Evoking a sense of a vast, unknowable wilderness, as well as a degenerate present, Lovecraft draws on the Puritan impulse to scare the living bejeezus out of his audience with a mad xenophobia and a deep disgust that perhaps compensates for the (unacknowledged?) knowledge that it was his people who persecuted the Quakers and murdered the Indians. Lovecraft's dread of the Old Ones is suffused with guilt. It wasn't sex that he most feared but the return of a historical repressed.


J. Hoberman is theVoice's senior film critic and the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (just out in paperback from the New Press).

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